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Within minutes fisherman and local boaters were searching for survivors in the debris, making frantic radio calls to the Halifax Search and Rescue Center, said navy spokeswoman Tracy Simoneau. Rescuers said the air was thick with the smell of jet fuel, she added.
"(The debris) is spread out over a very large area," said John Campbell, a charter boat captain, calling from his boat.
Soon all of the available ships from this small fishing community, accustomed to making rescues in the often violent North Atlantic, converged on the crash site. Coast Guard helicopters hovered overhead and a navy refueling ship, the HMCS Preserver, steamed into the bay.
Above the helicopters, a large navy C-130 Hercules circled, searching the water with advanced rescue equipment, dropped flairs that lit the black water in an orange glow.
"They are mobilizing fishing boats and anything to head out," said Eleanor McMahon, vacationing in the Blandford area. "It is very eerie. Nothing happens here."
As the ships and helicopters played spotlights across the 61-degree water, jet fuel shimmered off the surface. Luggage, Styrofoam and bodies bobbed up and down in the waves, Campbell said.
"It's almost a floating city with the number of boats here. They are making repeated calls that they are finding bodies and human remains," a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Rob Gordon, said by telephone from one of the boats. He said the largest piece of debris was a shredded life raft.
On shore, firefighters paced the beach near the crash sight, behind them more than a dozen ambulances lined up to treat survivors and take them to hospitals. They waited in vain.
"We are continuing to consider this a rescue effort," said Grant Lingley, a spokesman for the regional emergency health services, about five hours after the crash. But he admitted that hospital officials had sent their extra staff home.